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On the Origins of Kehilla

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the thirteenth and final essay in a series devoted to the beginnings of Kehilla.

Re-Visioning the American Synagogue

The phrase “Jewish Renewal” came into prominence in the early 1980s, but there were numerous communities in the late 1960s and 1970s across the country that were part of the new Jewish counter-culture. They were called havurot or minyanim or New Age Jewish communities. Some of these entities were centered around charismatic leaders, but when I began to think about starting what I would call Kehilla Community Synagogue, I knew that this would not be my path. I was not opposed to this kind of leadership, but I myself did not possess a charismatic gift. Out of my work with my spiritual director, Rev. Ted Pecot, I became convinced that the very center of the synagogue community I wished to start should be a set of ideals, a compelling vision that would fuse together a particular notion of community, a spiritual understanding of Judaism, and a progressive mission of engagement in tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

By the beginning of 1984 I had composed an eleven-page blueprint, Re-Visioning the American Synagogue. This vision and mission statement argued that the majority of American Jewish religious institutions were failing to come to grips with the challenges facing American Jews and Judaism.

The document asserted that it might be possible to create a new form of American Judaism, one that would nurture our lives in some profound ways, integrating wisdom from the past with the best values and ideals of contemporary living. It would aspire to a vision of the future based on our knowledge of the potential of the human spirit. It would embody a Judaism that would bring together in an integral fashion the personal and the communal, the mystical and the intellectual, the moral and the political. It would seek to create a religious perspective that would at once be imaginative and passionate, as well as clear-sighted and rational.

Inspired by the Ba’al Shem Tov, my founding statement declared that “the divine lives in the depths of every individual, just as the divine lives at the core of every creation and in every process in the universe. . . At its best, religious tradition can teach us how to listen to our own depths, and how to incorporate the teachings of the spirit into our daily lives.” But the congregation’s mission would also be affected by the demanding call for justice and compassion expressed so ardently by the ancient Hebrew prophets. Citing Anne Roiphe, I wrote that the community would emphasize “the necessity for a strong political thrust in active opposition to human suffering, together with the quest for international peace.”

I started Kehilla, in part, because at the time no synagogue that I knew of would have hired a rabbi with the views I held on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the founding vision I wrote that “We believe that just as the Jewish people requires a homeland for those who choose to live there, so the Palestinian people must have its own homeland. We will work for this goal, both in the interests of justice for the Palestinians, and also to promote greater security and peace for Israelis.” Because anyone choosing to join Kehilla would stand in solidarity with my vision, I felt safe in the coming years to speak publicly on behalf of an end to the Occupation, and in favor of a two-state resolution to the conflict.

Unconditional love was at the core of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s message, and it seemed to me that this new congregation should welcome and respect everyone equally. Women would be encouraged to lead and serve in the congregation in ways that were fully equal to men. And from the very beginning, Kehilla embraced as full members Jews and non-Jews, intermarried families, gays, lesbians and transgendered people. It’s hard to imagine now, but thirty-two years ago most synagogues were not welcoming to all people equally.

As I worked on the founding statement, it became clear to me that the model I was envisioning would, like all liberal synagogues, be a voluntary, membership-based, democratically-run congregation. I could not expect everyone who joined to share all of my convictions. I knew that I would have to moderate some of my expectations. I could only invite members to invest their time and energy into building community, holyday observance, education, spiritual development and the pursuit of social justice, but I could not force anyone to buy into my entire dream.

In the early years of the congregation I continued the liturgical work I had begun in the Aquarian Minyan, re-visioning and rewriting the traditional prayers in the light of my commitment to panentheism (the belief that everything exists within divinity), universalism and feminism.

I made a conscious decision not to emphasize the Holocaust. Here, too, I felt that I was following in the footsteps of the Ba’al Shem Tov. In 1648 there were massacres of Jews in Poland, and tens of thousands of Jews perished. This was only half a century before the Ba’al Shem’s birth, but remarkably there are no references at all to these pogroms in the corpus of Beshtian teachings and tales. The Ba’al Shem eschewed sadness and sorrow and instead emphasized joy and love, which would offer healing to the Jews of Poland. He taught the possibility and necessity of transforming suffering into goodness. Likewise, even though my teacher and friend, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, had survived the Holocaust, he hardly referred to it in his teachings. I felt that the best way to honor the victims of the Shoah was to create a vibrant living Judaism in the present.

I am hoping that the complete text of Re-Visioning the American Synagogue will soon be mounted on the Kehilla website.


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